Review Summary: There’s a reason why this got so overplayed
Look, I’m not going to explain Back in Black to you. You already know the story behind this album. You were torn from the womb knowing this story. You’ve probably heard half of the songs on here this week without even trying and you most likely don’t ever want to hear anything about it ever again.
For how pervasive Back in Black has become in the musical zeitgeist and beyond, it’s easy to forget how miraculous it is for it to not only exist at all but to have also come out with such swift turnaround. Bon Scott tragically passed February of 1980, his replacement was hired the next month, and the album came out that July. There’s always speculation as to how much music was written prior to Bon’s death and it certainly speaks to the Young brothers’ tenacity. There’s solace in the family giving the band their blessing to continue and one can only hope they were able to properly grieve.
But with any signs of that grief being more subtext than outright stated, the focus diverts to what new singer Brian Johnson brings to the table. He and his predecessor aren’t too different on the surface, both exhibit untrained gruffness and a working class attitude. But while Bon presented himself as a sly trickster who could talk his way into any bed and out of any brawl, Johnson’s persona is a brute who’s never read a book in his life and would rather fight than ***. His screech is downright unintelligible but also has a pitch that’s strangely more melodic. It’s the sort of thing that would become an Achilles’ heel down the road but for now, I wouldn’t have the title track’s rapid fire rasps or the crooning on “You Shook Me All Night Long” any other way.
I also find this album was a surprising amount of atmosphere that was merely hinted at in past efforts. A song like the opening “Hell’s Bells” isn’t exactly morose, but the combination of guitar interplay and that iconic rolling bell can be pretty damn ominous with the weather imagery and crashing chords adding to the intensity. “Let Me Put My Love Into You” is moodier than its boneheaded title would suggest as its bass thumps and held out riffs fit a late night drive and the closing “Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution” asserts itself with husky dynamics.
Of course, the band’s mission statement to rock out still abides beneath the adjustments. “Shoot to Thrill” is essentially “Live Wire” updated for the eighties, “What Do You Do for Money Honey” wouldn’t have been out of place on Highway to Hell with its rousing singalong, and the bitterness of ”Have a Drink on Me” goes down smooth. One can also hear the guitars getting even tighter with a crunchier tone than before, no doubt a contributor to the band’s unwanted association with the heavy metal tag as the decade progressed.
It’s frankly insane how Back in Black was not only able to sustain AC/DC’s short term momentum but also subsequently launched them to the stratosphere of hard rock. It may not be dramatic a reinvention as what a band like Black Sabbath was going through at the same time, but it shows a meaner AC/DC armed with heavier riffs and an unhinged chain-smoking banshee. Even if you never neee to hear this album again, there’s a reason why this *** got so overplayed.